MEDIA: “Pleasure, Anesthesia, and the Burden of Consciousness”

RFD fall 2016 cover

Last fall RFD, the radical faerie quarterly reader-written journal, devoted a special issue to the topic of Substances. The magazine includes some extremely honest and searching writings looking at many different practices involving party drugs and sacred medicines. I continue to marvel and chuckle at the powerful, witty cover image created by managing editor Bambi Gauthier and art director Matt Bucy (above). I contributed a very personal essay about my own experience of using various mind-altering substances, what I’ve gained, and how closely I monitor the balance of recreational and ceremonial explorations, what’s excessive and what’s enough. The essay is titled “Pleasure, Anesthesia, and the Burden of Consciousness: Notes on Substances.”

Early on, I say:

I am at heart an epicurean. I believe that pleasure is the greatest good in life, and in my sacred intimate practice I’m a champion of healing through pleasure. I’m quite attached to the pleasures in my life: the four cups of strong black tea that fuel my day, the couple of glasses of wine or beer that are my treat at the end of the day, my robust sex life, my enjoyment of music, and the occasional toke that my stoner boyfriend has taught me to enjoy. At the same time, I’m aware that sometimes it’s hard to distinguish pleasure from anesthesia, and sometimes I wonder what pain or fear I might be medicating or numbing with the substances I routinely enjoy. I’m sure I’m a bit hypervigilant about this because my father’s alcoholism left a strong imprint on my life. But I like to believe that I remain in choice rather than compulsive about my pleasures, and I’ve noticed that when I diet to prepare for sacred medicine ceremonies, I get quite cranky about giving up tea and wine and still spend considerable energy thinking about and craving them. There are writing projects that are important to me that I’m trying to summon the energy and stamina and concentration to complete, and it’s unclear to me whether my use of substances helps or hinders that. The constant existential battle between Living a Good Life and Getting Things Done.

RFD has a fairly small readership, so after sharing the essay with a handful of friends, one of them suggested I approach Reality Sandwich, the online magazine created by Evolver Learning Lab, about republishing my piece. The editors there enthusiastically embraced the idea, so now it’s available to read in full. Check it out here and let me know what you think.

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Quote of the day: Lucretius on sexual pleasure

swerve

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Swerve, Stephen Greenblatt offers a detailed summary of Lucretius’s provocative, far-reaching, influential epic poem from the first century B.C., De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things), which is itself a digest for Roman audiences of the teachings of Epicurus, the ancient Greek philosopher. Epicurus certainly looms large in my own personal pantheon — his philosophy proclaims that the highest good in life is pleasure. Here’s a passage from The Swerve that speaks to the concerns of this blog…

The greatest obstacle to pleasure is not pain; it is delusion. The principal enemies of human happiness are inordinate desire –the fantasy of attaining something that exceeds what the finite mortal world allows – and gnawing fear. Even the dread plague, in Lucretius- account – and his work ends with a graphic account of a catastrophic plague epidemic in Athens – is most horrible not only for the suffering and death that it brings but also and still more for the “perturbation and panic” that it triggers.

It is perfectly reasonable to seek to avoid pain such avoidance is one of the pillars of his whole ethical system. But how is it possible to keep this natural aversion from turning into panic, panic that only leads to the triumph of suffering? And, more generally, why are humans so unhappy?

lucretius_360x450

The answer, Lucretius (above) thought, had to do with the power of the imagination. Though they are finite and mortal, humans are gripped by illusions of the infinite – infinite pleasure and infinite pain. The fantasy of infinite pain helps to account for their proneness to religion: in the misguided belief that their souls are immortal and hence potentially subject to an eternity of suffering, humans imagine that they can somehow negotiate with the gods for a better outcome, an eternity of pleasure in paradise. The fantasy of infinite pleasure helps to account for their proneness to romantic love: in the misguided belief that their happiness depends upon the absolute possession of some single object of limitless desire, humans are seized by a feverish, unappeasable hunger and thirst that can only bring anguish instead of happiness.

Once again it is perfectly reasonable to seek sexual pleasure: that is, after all, one of the body’s natural joys. The mistake, Lucretius thought, was to confound this joy with a delusion, the frenzied craving to possess – at once to penetrate and to consume – what is in reality a dream. Of course, the absent lover is always only a mental image and in this sense akin to a dream. But Lucretius observed in passages of remarkable frankness that in the very act of sexual consummation lovers remain in the grip of confused longings that they cannot fulfill:

Even in the hour of possession the passion of the lovers fluctuates and wanders in uncertainty: they cannot decide what to enjoy first with their eyes and hands. They tightly squeeze the object of their desire and cause bodily pain, often driving their teeth into one another’s lips and crushing mouth against mouth.

The point of this passage – part of what W. B. Yeats called “the finest description of sexual intercourse ever written” – is not to urge a more decorous, tepid form of lovemaking. It is to take note of the element of unsated appetite that haunts even the fulfillment of desire. The insatiability of sexual appetite is, in Lucretius’ view, one of Venus’ cunning strategies; it helps to account for the fact that, after brief interludes, the same acts of love are performed again and again. And he understood too that these repeated acts are deeply pleasurable. But he remained troubled by the ruse, by the emotional suffering that comes in its wake, by the arousal of aggressive impulses, and, above all, by the sense that even the moment of ecstasy leaves something to be desired. In 1685, the great poet John Dryden brilliantly captured Lucretius’ remarkable vision:

…when the youthful pair more closely join,
When hands in hands they lock, and thighs in thighs they twine;
Just in the raging foam of full desire,
When both press on, both murmur, both expire,
They grip, they squeeze, their humid tongues they dart,
As each would force their way to th’others heart.
In vain; they only cruise about the coast.
For bodies cannot pierce, nor be in bodies lost,
As sure as they strive to be, when both engage
In that tumultuous momentary rage.
So tangled in the nets of love they lie,
Till man dissolves in that excess of joy.

epicurus

DID YOU SEE: Washington Post column on what to do when marital sex wanes

Scrolling through the Washington Post website, I couldn’t help noticing a headline that reflected a sentiment I’ve heard from many a client: “Husband who hasn’t had sex in years wonders, ‘Is this normal?'”

I was impressed with columnist Carolyn Hax‘s answer, the gist of which was this:

What’s “normal” in a marriage is less important than what’s mutual.

If you’re worried, then, yes, you should be; if you’re not worried, then you shouldn’t be.

By that measure, the cause for concern at home is that you and your wife aren’t talking or touching.

Talking and sex are a fickle combination, though, with couples just as often cooled off by it as warmed up. If you tend to the former, then try this, first: Introduce more fun, physical but nonsexual activity to your lives together. As it stands now, you’re not touching, you’re not passionate, you’re putting on weight — this is about more than sex, no? It’s about losing your connection to your own bodies. When was the last time you and your wife hiked, biked, paddled, danced?

Using your body is the best way to wake it up — and not coincidentally, movement is a known emotional conductor. Get yourselves going, together, in a way that you both enjoy, and you stand to improve your connection (1) and communication (2) as much as you do your blood flow (3), all while adding an (I’m guessing) urgently needed shot of novelty (4) to your marriage — thereby accounting for the four cornerstones of passion. So. Take her hand, and go.

She has a few other things to say that make sense as well. Check out the whole column here and let me know what you think.

get-naked-emotionally

EVENT: summer retreat in Tuscany for gay men

Have you ever been to Italy? If not, maybe it’s time. If so, do you miss it? I do. That’s why I’m going back this summer with my friend and colleague John Ballew to host

COME BACK TO YOUR SENSES – Cultivating Sensuality in Tuscany
A workshop for gay men
June 11-18, 2016

Terrace-Lunch-AH-2013

About the Program:

In today’s fast-paced world, hard-working people spend their days harnessed to computers and electronic devices. We believe it’s spiritually rewarding to take time to nourish yourself, to explore and refine simple pleasures. We invite you to come back to your senses.

Presented under the auspices of our friends at Il Chiostro, this retreat offers more than simply the opportunity to get away from ordinary life. We are inspired by the ancient philosophy of Epicureanism. Dating from the 4th century BC, Epicureanism taught that the pleasures of the senses offer a verifiable standard of truth and therefore can serve to cultivate wisdom, justice, and happiness.

During the week-long retreat, we will spend time cultivating all of the senses. You will be invited to really see what you see, taste what you taste, smell what you smell, hear what you hear, and touch what you touch – really slow down, savor your sensory impressions and replenish your skills of discernment.

In a setting that is both safe and inviting to gay men, we will help you remember the joy of life in a body!

pool and gazebo

“Come Back to Your Senses” is a rich but gently structured adventure. Our days together will alternate between two different kinds of activity:

1) interactive group exercises designed to help us slow down, engage our sensual mechanisms, recalibrate our awareness of what’s important in our lives, activate our creativity, and cultivate deeper intimacy with ourselves and others; and

2) expeditions to nearby towns such as Montalcino and Pienza or destinations such as the Abbey at Sant’Antimo or the spa Bagno Vignoni.

There will be time to relax and enjoy the beautiful Tuscan setting, and every evening we will sit down for a leisurely delicious multi-course dinner prepared just for us. There’s something really special about sharing these activities in Italy with a soulful group of open-hearted gay men. The size of the group is limited to 10 participants.

perfect moment dievole

Accommodations: The program will take place at Il Chiostro’s favorite new location, San Giovanni d’Asso in Tuscany, 40 km southeast of Siena. We will stay in an ancient farmhouse called “Il Tribbio,” which was completely refurbished in 2005. This large house has five double bedrooms, each of which has a private bathroom and air-conditioning. Outside there is a loggia with panoramic views of the surrounding area known as the Val d’Orcia. a swimming pool, and large outdoor spaces for gathering or relaxing. In front of the house there is a large, beautiful garden with olive and pomegranate trees and a wide grassland, from which you can enjoy a wonderful view of the rolling Sienese hills.

map

Il Tribbio is located in a peaceful countryside 10 minutes by foot (1 km) from the romantic village of San Giovanni d’Asso, which has a beautiful 14th century castle, a charming tiny 11th century Romanesque church, a crazy botanical garden called Il Bosco della Ragnaia (curated and owned by an American painter), and a truffle museum (most of the truffles that come from Italy originate here).

Price: $2,595 p/p

Includes:

  • Double room with ensuite bathroom and shower
  • Daily breakfast and dinner, including wine
  • Workshop tuition, daily experiences facilitated by the instructors
  • Selected excursions with the group

Price does not include:

  • Airfare
  • Lunch
  • Independent meals and sight-seeing

To register:  A non-refundable deposit of $500 is required to secure your spot in the workshop.  Payment can be made online here with a credit card, or you can follow the instructions to send in your registration and payment by mail.  Once we receive your deposit we will send you a formal Registration Confirmation with further information about the program.  You will receive 2-3 other correspondences by email prior to the workshop with information about Italy, a supplies list and an electronic invoice for the balance.  Final Balance is due by May 1st.

Contact us for more information:  info@ilchiostro.com or speak to the registration staff live at 800-990-3506. If you have any questions, feel free to contact either me or John Ballew directly.

 

QUOTE OF THE DAY: Jon Kabat-Zinn on Mindfulness

MINDFULNESS

Back in 1979, when I started Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, I came up with an operational definition of mindfulness that still serves as well as anything else: mindfulness is the awareness that arises from paying attention on purpose in the present moment nonjudgmentally. That doesn’t mean you won’t have any judgments. In fact, when we start paying attention, we realize that we almost have nothing but judgments going through our heads. Just about every thought has reactive emotions associated with it: liking, disliking, wanting, rejecting, greed, aversion, and with plenty of delusion thrown in to leaven the pot. So mindfulness is about getting access to our own awareness with equanimity and without falling into a stream of conceptual thinking that goes on and on and on.

You could say that mindfulness is about cultivating a relationship of intimacy with oneself. But what does that mean? The body is really a big part of this because most of the time, except under very specialized circumstances, we tend to tune out the body completely. We’re in our heads most of the time because it’s challenging to stay in touch with the body. So a good place to start as a focus of attention is the breath. After all, as they used to say, you can’t leave home without it. And we’re always one breath away from not being alive.

The challenge is actually just experiencing one breath in and one breath out. And that means not thinking about the breath or patting ourselves on the back for how wonderfully we breathe or anything like that. It’s just the direct knowing of breathing. But breathing is just the object of attention. Mindfulness isn’t about the object: what it’s really about is the attending itself.

The message of mindfulness is an invitation to everybody to wake up to the true dimensionality of who we all are, and to move in a direction of maximizing the good that comes from our activities and minimizing the harm both to ourselves and others. And that could be done on a corporate level, on a national level, on an international level.

I think the reason we’re seeing so much interest now in mindfulness is that, as a species, we’re starving for authentic experience. But the impulse is to make mindfulness into a kind of catechism, in which some inner circle understands what mindfulness really is and everybody else is deluded. Instead, I think of mindfulness as a big umbrella. The difference between various traditions are unimportant as long as the focus is on creating greater well-being and minimizing harm.

–Jon Kabat-Zinn, “The Reluctant Guru,” Psychotherapy Networker

jon kabat-zinn

A meditation on love

Love is the mucillage that sticks the construction-paper pumpkins in the scrapbooks of our lives.
— David Mamet

What is love?
Baby, don’t hurt me
Don’t hurt me
No more.
–Haddaway

Valentine’s Day is a commercial bonanza second only to Christmas for the gift-giving industry. Businesses that sell flowers, chocolate, perfume, and greeting cards are busy and happy this time of year. For people who aren’t in romantic relationships, Valentine season can be excruciating, a taunting reminder of being left out of a central social ritual. Not everybody wants to be in a relationship. Plenty of people who are in relationships wish they weren’t. But most people experience at some time a deep, poignant, archetypal longing to have a Special Someone in their lives. I honor and respect that longing, and I treat it seriously when it shows up in conversations with friends and clients.

Lately there’s been a lot of conversation about an article that appeared in the Sunday New York Times’s popular Modern Love column called “To Fall in Love with Anyone, Do This.” Vancouver-based writing instructor Mandy Len Catron began her essay by saying, “More than 20 years ago, the psychologist Arthur Aron succeeded in making two strangers fall in love in his laboratory. Last summer, I applied his technique in my own life, which is how I found myself standing on a bridge at midnight, staring into a man’s eyes for exactly four minutes.” The method Aron crafted in order to generate love consisted of having two people answer a serious of increasingly personal questions (three sets of 12 questions) and then spend four minutes looking into each other’s eyes.

to fall in illo
Catron reports that her own experience confirmed Aron’s findings, though she conducted the experiment not with a complete stranger but with someone with whom she already felt an attraction. “Much of Dr. Aron’s research focuses on creating interpersonal closeness. In particular, several studies investigate the ways we incorporate others into our sense of self. It’s easy to see how the questions encourage what they call ‘self-expansion.’ Saying things like, ‘I like your voice, your taste in beer, the way all your friends seem to admire you,’ makes certain positive qualities belonging to one person explicitly valuable to the other. It’s astounding, really, to hear what someone admires in you. I don’t know why we don’t go around thoughtfully complimenting one another all the time,” she writes.

“Most of us think about love as something that happens to us. We fall. We get crushed. But what I like about this study is how it assumes that love is an action. It assumes that what matters to my partner matters to me because we have at least three things in common, because we have close relationships with our mothers, and because he let me look at him.”

Catron’s article quickly went viral. In just a few weeks, a cottage industry has sprung up around The Questions. The Sunday after her column appeared, the Times noted that the article had generated more than 5.2 million visits to the page online, 365,000 shares on Facebook, and 745 comments on the Times website. The newspaper also published the complete list of The Questions Themselves. Inevitably, the following week the New Yorker published a parody of the questions, “To Fall Out of Love, Do This.” (“5. What’s your favorite song? No, it’s not. I’ve never once heard you listen to that song.”)

to fall out illo
The online magazine Dame ran its own witty version. (“12. What would it take for you stop talking about the Paleo diet? 25. A nuclear bomb is detonated near your home, and you are slowly dying from radiation poisoning. Name the internal organ you’d like to keep functioning the longest.”) Last Sunday, the Modern Love column’s editor Daniel Jones wrote about the 36 Questions phenomenon, and the NY Times has even designed a smartphone app so you can conduct the experiment yourself.

Which I encourage you to do. Let me know how it goes. I probably won’t be going through the sequence myself. Personally, I love questions. I’ve spent most of my professional life asking questions, as a journalist and as a psychotherapist. And I also love being asked questions. Not everyone feels the same way. My sweetheart dreads it when I ask probing questions – he feels interrogated and fears that he will give the wrong answer and fail the test. When I asked one of my sisters why she didn’t call me more often, she confessed, “Because you ask difficult questions.” So I have come to understand that what I consider loving attention and genuine open-ended curiosity can come off as intrusive and demanding. There are, obviously, other ways of creating closeness and intimacy. Anything you do to reveal yourself to someone else, gradually and repeatedly, contributes to building trust and connection.

Eye contact is another ambiguous tool. It can be a great way to connect energetically but it can also feel threatening or challenging. I’m struck by how Catron’s article describes the closing extra-credit exercise of Aron’s experiment as “staring,” a word that seems to describe a hostile activity, something we’re taught as children to avoid. But I know from my experience teaching workshops about intimacy that no matter how careful I am to frame the experiment as “gazing into the other person’s eyes,” some people inevitably refer to it as “the staring exercise.”

Catron beautifully captures the vulnerability of the eye-gazing experiment: “I’ve skied steep slopes and hung from a rock face by a short length of rope, but staring into someone’s eyes for four silent minutes was one of the more thrilling and terrifying experiences of my life. I spent the first couple of minutes just trying to breathe properly. There was a lot of nervous smiling until, eventually, we settled in. I know the eyes are the windows to the soul or whatever, but the real crux of the moment was not just that I was really seeing someone, but that I was seeing someone really seeing me. Once I embraced the terror of this realization and gave it time to subside, I arrived somewhere unexpected. I felt brave, and in a state of wonder.”

Looking into someone’s eyes is an extremely brave activity. It’s never clear what you’re going to see looking back at you. Sometimes what gets mirrored back are your own harsh self-judgments or the scrutiny of a critical parent. It takes a lot of practice and presence to hold still long enough to witness the quality of acceptance in another person’s eyes. But that is the essence of intimacy – into-me-you-see.

My favorite meditation on this subject is Bobbie Louise Hawkins’s wonderful poem, “Take Love, For Instance”:

How can it be desirable, that flurry of feeling that if it continues and maintains intensity we call Love?
How perverse we are relative to our own good to have that in our feelings that from the age of thirteen or so, younger all the time they say, until seventy or whatever, no end to it they say, we give over or are given into the “divine emotion.”
Divine mix of anxiety, insecurity, longing that drives us until if we are fortunate, lucky in love, we have a brief relief that shines like fulfillment.
The constant fool’s miracle, like fool’s gold, but inherent; an inherent miracle. Passion brought to bear on eyes that shine back.
And then, or somewhat later, downhill all the way.
From here to there. Remember there.
Caught in the clutches of a one-way ticket. Express.

We are poor.
We are poor.
There is nothing here.

And we sling our everything into the void of it, to be caught.
What is that appetite that pretends to sustenance and ends with all the color gone from the day and no one funny anymore. The appetite that carries veils and obscures our memory.

And can you in that moment’s tender voice say No to it? How mean to refuse it, this little miracle that does so want in. Feel it knocking at your heart.

Poor heart.

See what followed me home.
Can I keep it?

 

 

 

 

Understanding Social Anxiety

This article was published online by Edge On the Net August 14, 2014.

What’s the difference between fear and anxiety? Fear is a normal emotional response to a clear and present danger. Anxiety is the persistent experience of fear in the absence of threat.

I gleaned this succinct and useful distinction from Richard A. Friedman’s front-page essay in the New York Times Sunday Review called “Why Teenagers Act Crazy.” Friedman, a psychiatrist and professor who directs the psychopharmacology clinic at the Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City, summarizes recent research suggesting that “Largely because of a quirk of brain development, adolescents, on average, experience more anxiety and fear and have a harder time learning how not to be afraid than either children or adults.”

Friedman notes that “the brain circuit for processing fear — the amygdala — is precocious and develops way ahead of the prefrontal cortex, the seat of reasoning and executive control. This means that adolescents have a brain that is wired with an enhanced capacity for fear and anxiety, but is relatively underdeveloped when it comes to calm reasoning.”

illustration by Gary Panter for the New York Times

illustration by Gary Panter for the New York Times

Although we associate adolescence with an impulse toward adventure and novelty seeking in the name of rebellion and individuation, this risk-taking is not necessarily carefree. Apparently, adolescents have difficulty learning how not to be afraid. “While we have limited control over the fear alarm from our amygdala, our prefrontal cortex can effectively exert top-down control, giving us the ability to more accurately assess the risk in our environment. Because the prefrontal cortex is one of the last brain regions to mature, adolescents have far less ability to modulate emotions,” writes Friedman.

“Fear learning lies at the heart of anxiety and anxiety disorders. This primitive form of learning allows us to form associations between events and specific cues and environments that may predict danger. Way back on the savanna, for example, we would have learned that the rustle in the grass or the sudden flight of birds might signal a predator — and taken the cue and run to safety. Without the ability to identify such danger signals, we would have been lunch long ago. But once previously threatening cues or situations become safe, we have to be able to re-evaluate them and suppress our learned fear associations. People with anxiety disorders have trouble doing this.”

Because of their relative difficulty in learning to be unafraid, adolescents may not be good candidates for exposure therapy or the use of stimulants like Adderall. “Stimulants, just like emotionally charged experiences, cause the release of norepinephrine — a close relative of adrenaline — in the brain and facilitate memory formation. That’s the reason we can easily forget where we put our keys but will never forget the details of being assaulted.”

Difficulty telling the difference between real and imaginary dangers isn’t confined to teenagers, though. As I read and thought about Friedman’s article, I immediately thought of two different adult gay male clients describing almost identical experiences of social anxiety. Both these men are smart, educated, attractive guys in their forties who have interesting jobs and are established in their fields (publishing and education). And yet both of them feel intensely uneasy walking into a party with other gay men.

Sandy* has been challenging himself to say yes to social invitations more often, so he forced himself to go to a friend’s party but did so with considerable dread. As soon as he arrived at the party, he “knew” it wasn’t going to be fun for him. Everyone knew everyone, he alone was the outsider. He stayed for an hour and then had to leave. At his job, he’s conscientious, organized, motivated to do well, intelligent, experienced, sympathetic, reasonable, a good collaborator. He feels 75% comfortable at work. Where’s that guy in social setting? He disappears, replaced by insecurities: How do I act, sound, look, behave? What can I say that would interest anyone?

Doug* struggles with similar issues of worthiness. He will happily engage with people who approach him in social settings but can’t bring himself to initiate contact because he can’t imagine that he has anything to offer. At a recent social event, he had the impulse to flee early on, but in contrast to Sandy he was able to leave the room and find a private space to collect his thoughts. He realized that he was acting as if there was something deeply scary going on that he had to get away from. But he had to admit that there was no danger in the next room – it was just a group of people hanging out, getting to know each other, and wanting to have a good time. By summoning his inner resources (that executive function Friedman ascribes to the prefrontal cortex) and accurately assessing the level of risk, he was able to expand his tolerance for braving the social environment longer. It takes practice but it pays off.

[*Names and details are changed to protect confidentiality.]

We could say that both Sandy and Doug were caught in the grip of their inner teenager, highly sensitive to fear of rejection, the danger of social disapproval or scorn, and the belief that they would be unable to survive rejection or humiliation. It’s as if every social encounter were an episode of Project Runway, with a visible or invisible committee judging your every move and fully prepared to send packing anyone who doesn’t make the grade.

looking-in

Brain functioning tells part of the social anxiety story, but not the whole story. I was fascinated the following Sunday to read a letter to the editor in the New York Times responding to Friedman’s article. The author, Robert Epstein, is a senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology and wrote a book called Teen 2.0.

Epstein said: “Studies have shown that about half of American teenagers meet the criteria for some form of mental illness, including anxiety disorders, but I disagree with Dr. Friedman that this is largely because of the properties of a teenage brain. That is a myth perpetuated by a handful of researchers, some of whom are funded by the pharmaceutical industry, which has successfully created a huge new market for psychoactive drugs by promoting the faulty ‘teenage brain’ idea. In more than 100 cultures around the world, teenage turmoil is absent; such cultures don’t even have a word for ‘adolescence.’ If the teenage brain were responsible for the turmoil of our teenagers, we would see it everywhere. We don’t. The turmoil of our teenagers is due entirely to societal practices that infantilize young people and isolate them from responsible adults, trapping them in the frivolous, media-controlled world of ‘teen culture.’ Anthropological research also demonstrates that when Western schooling and media enter cultures where teenagers are highly functional, they typically take on all the pathological characteristics of American teenagers within a decade. The problem is our society, not the brain.”

I’m a little dubious about Epstein’s insistence that his theory “entirely” explains teenage turmoil, but I was grateful for his acknowledgement that cultural factors play a huge role in how social behaviors evolve. Here are some things I understand about social anxiety in adult gay men.

Almost every gay man spent many years of childhood and adolescence either actively suffering harassment, bullying, and abuse for being perceived as gay/effeminate/different or spending considerable amounts of energy trying very hard not to be noticed in order to escape being harassed, bullied, or abuse. For fear of being excluded, we became experts at excluding ourselves. That conditioning doesn’t go away overnight. It takes a lot of time and growth and community-building and external affirmation to get comfortable showing yourself and being accepted as a sexual being. The ultimate goal is to be able to validate your own existence and not give so much weight to what other people think. That usually requires serious commitment to therapy, spiritual work, or some form of self-study.

illustration by Yann Kebbi for the New York Times

illustration by Yann Kebbi for the New York Times

It’s not uncommon for gay men to put socializing on the back burner during their twenties and thirties and to spend all their energy during that time pursuing their professional or academic ambitions. By the times they’re in their forties and fifties, they may well have established a solid professional identity, a sense of accomplishment, and considerable self-esteem – but still feel underdeveloped in the emotional/sexual/romantic arena. It’s not uncommon for men in that position to find socializing deeply awkward, embarrassing, or threatening because they feel highly self-conscious and often ashamed about their inexperience. It’s easy to look around a club or a party and assume that everybody else has superior social skills and feels perfectly at ease and sure of themselves. It’s easy to forget that as gay men we all grew up watching the rituals of heterosexual courtship happening all around us in school and in movies and TV shows. We probably didn’t get to experience the gay equivalent of adolescent flirtation, holding hands walking down the hall, sipping sodas through two straws, etc., so as adults we had to learn to go through those awkward stages of social contact. Every gay guy knows how clumsy and nerve-wracking that can feel. We know how it feels to be outside looking in. And our peers aren’t nearly as judgmental about that as we might imagine they are. But you only learn that by getting out there and doing it, which takes courage and practice and support.

Then there’s the social media, which has the potential to be a handy tool for meeting people and making connections but just as often it turns out to be a shield to hide behind, to avoid contact. How many times have you been in a bar or a public place where the majority of the people around you are staring at their glowing screens rather than communicating with the people standing next to them? We’ve gotten so accustomed to indirect, mediated forms of communication (email, text, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Scruff, Grindr, Manhunt, Recon, Adam4Adam, etc.) that we’ve formed our most intimate relationships with our devices and grown strangely out of practice with direct approach and spontaneous interaction. After all, Candy Crush doesn’t make fun of you. Netflix doesn’t give you attitude. E-mail doesn’t judge.

I see this in myself. Just the other day, I had a series of email and text-message exchanges with someone I haven’t seen in a while trying to find time in our busy schedules to get together, go for a walk, have a conversation, and catch up. Then I ran into him at the gym unexpectedly. We could have had some conversation in the locker room. We could have arranged to have coffee right after working out. At the very least we could have seized this opportunity to make a date. Instead, we greeted each other warmly but awkwardly, went about changing clothes and working out, and even sat on opposite sides of the steam room. I realized afterwards that we were acting as if our real relationship existed in our mediated communication and casual face-to-face encounters were some kind of temporary distraction – rather than the other way around.

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This helped me to understand how easily social anxiety can sneak into our lives. It’s astonishing how much stamina and mindfulness and tolerance for discomfort it can take to stay present in a social interaction without feeling like every momentary lull in the conversation is an agonizing silence or that you’re in the glare of the spotlight and you’re expected to put on a show. I’m thinking about my client Ralph, who prefers communicating in writing because he’s a perfectionist. He’ll labor over each text message or email or G-chat, polishing and deleting and revising until he gets the words just right, which includes making it look like the message was casually tossed off. Then anxiety sets in when he has to meet someone in person that he’s been flirting with on social media. Face to face, in real time, he feels pressure to live up to the witty banter he’s been flinging around on his smartphone. If the conversation doesn’t flow as easily as he thinks it should his self-consciousness can spiral into feeling fraudulent, which doesn’t make for a relaxing meet-and-greet. Paging Cyrano de Bergerac!

The split between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex that Friedman talked about in his New York Times article doesn’t automatically go away when you turn 21. It comes and goes all our lives, this challenge of learning not to be afraid, of summoning our executive control to see whether there’s real danger nearby or unwarranted fear and then to calm the skittish teenager inside who doesn’t know how to tell the difference.

That’s obviously easier said than done for a lot of people. It takes practice. That’s where taking a meditation class or joining a meditation group can be very helpful – the process of slowing down, watching your mind wander off into the woods, and gently bringing it back instills good practice for expanding your tolerance for situations that cause anxiety. With practice, it gets easier and easier to stop yourself when you’re going into a frenzy and consider: what am I afraid of? Am I really in danger, or am I really not? Most of the time when we fear that we’re being judged negatively by other people, it’s really our own harsh self-judgments that are causing our distress. Meditation can also help you learn and develop an attitude of kindness and compassion toward yourself.

There are other ways to work through social anxiety. Toastmasters is a popular approach, or any fellowship group that encourages people to get together and practice speaking openly in a social setting. Sometimes it takes medication and/or psychotherapy to dislodge old habits of being afraid. And sometimes maturity bestows its own blessing – one of the great things about aging is that at a certain point you stop giving a shit what other people think. But the good news is that your organism is built to understand the difference between fear and anxiety.